This Van Is Crazy! A Driver’s Tale on the Dalton Highway

Dalton Highway - Atigun Pass

Atigun Pass, Alaska

“This is going to be a long day,” I thought to myself as I checked off a box on my clipboard. I reached inside the cab, and turned off all of the electronics I had turned on just a few minutes before. I decided a few months earlier that a good way to make money was to be a driver for one of the tourism companies in Fairbanks. Instead of catering to the needs of 60 demanding visitors from the cruise ships, my job was was simply to drive cheap tourists and freight up and down the Dalton Highway. The scenery was beautiful, and it was a great way to see a good portion of Alaska on someone else’s dime. It was a good job.

Every driver was required to do a walk around of their vehicle before greeting the passengers. Armed with a clipboard and pen, we’d scrutinize every little thing on the vehicle, catching things that seemed out of the ordinary and marking them down on a sheet of paper. Usually, we’d find little things like a ding in the paint or a small amount of oil dripping from the pan, but not today. Today was special.

The vehicles we drove were huge Ford Econoline vans. “The Great Whites” as I came to call them, were big hulking monsters that could seat a small army. If they got going too fast, say the blistering speed of 50 miler-per-hour, the vans would start to wobble in protest. Because they were so large, the van’s center of gravity was situated toward the roof, and hitting a surprise pot hole would send myself and many other drivers into a panicked frenzy of prayer that our vans would not flip end over, and fly off some cliff with a grandmother in the back screaming, “I love Alaska! Look at the view!” The vans seemed to get great gas mileage, but that illusion was shattered once I saw my first fuel bill, and realized that the enormous Exxon Valdez sized gas tank could cause serious environmental damage should it crack open on a reef. There are no reefs along the Dalton Highway, or oceans for that matter, but I told myself early on that no misplaced shore birds would die on my watch. So the care of the vehicles was a great concern.

Looking at the trip notes from the driver before, I saw in big red letters, “This van is crazy!“ A review like that is not something a driver wants to see before starting on a long drive. My mind was instantly filled with images of some Disney cartoon where an anthropomorphic car decides it wants to imitate Ed Gein. Ed Gein is the real life inspiration for the movies Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He made lamp shades out of people’s skin.

The unsuspecting driver (a cute female, of course) is driving the Gein car along a curvy country road, when she decides to pull over at an abandoned farm to go pee. It’s the last time anyone sees her alive. It isn’t until years later that they find the Gein car on the farm with what seems to be an evil smile on its grill and her severed head in the trunk. It’s definitely not a Disney movie I’d like to see. Thankfully, the van wasn’t crazy like Ed Gein, and I came to the conclusion that it’s best not to think of severed heads before greeting passengers.

The notes told a tale of strange electrical mishaps. They said the van wasn’t starting correctly, wasn’t accelerating properly, the radio was shutting itself off and the headlights were dimming to the point that they were no longer useful. “It might be a ghost,” I joked to myself.

Now I’m a rational person, and the idea that there might be a ghost in a Ford Econoline van is absurd, but I’d like to think that anyone else in control while I’m driving, alive or dead, is not a good thing. The van was crazy, it said so in the notes. Trying to convince myself that there were no ghosts, I went to consult the great oracle of all things van related – The Head Shop Guy.

“Did you see these notes on ‘The Great White’?” He was loading the last of the freight in to the van. His blue overalls were covered in grease.

“Oh, you mean the lights? Yea, it should be fine,” he said in the distracted voice that people use when they don’t want to talk about something.

“But it says the van is crazy. Did you see that?” I pointed at the clipboard as if that would make it more official.

Adjusting his tan colored cap, he snipped back, “It’ll be fine.”

I wasn’t convinced. I didn’t need a ghost in the van (real or not) making things difficult. I started the van and ran the radio, the CB radio, the windshield wipers and all of the lights at the same time. Everything seemed to be working fine. There were no dimming lights, nothing was shutting itself off, and most importantly, no green ghosts were popping their heads out of the seats. I stared at the notes one more time, filing the ghosts away in the back of my mind, but not too far back. “This van is crazy,” the words screamed off the page.

In normal driving situations, it would be OK to take the warnings in the notes with a grain of salt, even warnings in big red letters. If something happened, there would be a quick call to AAA. Ten minutes later an overweight man who studied the same magical arts as The Head Shop Guy, would appear with his grease stained blue overalls and giant beard, wave his magic iron wand, and leave you standing there with a fixed vehicle and feeling slightly embarrassed about the quality of your manhood . These men were usually named Butch, Charles or Carl. But the Dalton Highway was no typical driving situation. Sure, Butch, Charles and Carl were still there to rescue you, but they had their own vehicles to worry about.

The Dalton Highway is almost a misnomer in the fact that besides the name, there is not much about it that resembles a typical highway. It’s 500 miles of gravel, with steep inclines, sharp turns, and so much mud when it rains, that the vans often resemble a freshly coated chocolate cake. To make things worse, when the rain stops and the mud dries, the road turns in to one giant stretch of dust, whose only goal in life is to prevent you from seeing anything. If you’re unlucky enough to be following a semi-truck, you’re guaranteed to get your daily allowance of calories from the dust you eat.

From the moment you start on the highway, there are signs warning travelers that a trip to hell might actually be easier than a trip on the Dalton. “Beware weary traveler,” one sign might read. “There’s no gas for the next 250 miles.” It’s recommended that you carry multiple spare tires, a CB radio and provisions for a extended period of time should you become stuck or crash. Because there are very few people living along the road, communication on the Dalton is extremely sparse. Cell service is so poor that carrier pigeons are available at all of the main stops. OK, that’s not true, but should someone get stuck, they may be waiting for quite a while before someone is willing to stop and help. Big trucks often appear out of nowhere, and add to that the possibility of all sorts of animals, like Dall Sheep, being in the road, and the Dalton makes for a formidable driving experience.

After signing off that there were no ghosts in the van (that I could see), it was time to grab a satellite phone and meet the passengers. After exchanging pleasantries, I explained the rules of the trip: don’t stand on the road, watch out for trucks and animals, don’t litter and when we’re not in the van, the driver (me) is not responsible for their safety. As is the case with most rules, these were born from the previous experiences of drivers who had battled the road before me. In a moment of foreshadowing, one of the passengers, a kooky looking lady wearing thick glasses that magnified her eyes to monstrous proportions, looked directly at me and asked, “What are we getting ourselves into?” All I could think about were the words, “This van is crazy,” written in big red letters on my clipboard. “We should be fine,” I said in the voice that people use when they don’t want to talk about something. The Head Shop Guy was so wise.

My passengers were two elderly couples going to see the Prudhoe Bay oilfields and a scientist lady who was being taken to a research camp that sits along the road. The elderly couples were the standard mold of Alaska tourist who are in their mid-to-late-sixties, from Nebraska and named Deb and Bert. The scientist lady was from Canada and had spent most of her adult life studying tundra bugs. It was apparent at the start that she had spent a little too much time with the bugs and not enough time with mammalian creatures of the two legged variety. She had long stringy unkempt hair, over sized black glasses, which if I didn’t know any better could see features on the moon up close, and a desperation in her voice that screamed she just wanted someone to listen to her when she talked. When one of the elderly passengers later asked her exactly what tundra bugs were, what followed was an hour long explanation of her whole career, medical and dating histories. I spent that early part of trip feeling sorry for her, and tried to find any excuse to change the subject.

She said one of her boyfriends resembled a brown bear, and I’d ask, “Did you know that brown bears aren’t actually brown?”

I made that up.

She’d say that another one of her boyfriends was a cave explorer, and I’d follow with, “Did you know that a man once crawled inside of the pipeline and walked the whole 800 miles?”

That one too.

When you’re driving tourists on the Dalton Highway there are two things that are always sure to happen. The first is that there is always someone wanting to know about every minuscule little detail of the road, and the second is that someone always has to pee. I became so good at answering questions, that if you wanted to know how many people died on the road, I could tell you. If you wanted to know how many days it takes an average person to walk the road, I could tell you. If you wanted to know the percentage of blueberries in a brown bear’s fecal matter, I could tell you that too. But the one question I was never able to answer came as the scientist lady asked, “If you were to kill someone on this road, where would you dump the body?” What followed was silence. We all held our breath as the scientist lady looked at me for an honest answer that wasn’t going to come.

“Please don’t make me answer this,” I thought to myself.

“I have to pee,” said one of the elderly ladies.

“Thank god!”

A few more hours into the drive is when everyone’s butts start feeling every little bump and wiggle the van makes. It was just as I was starting to notice the pain in my butt, that I noticed the engine sounding funny. We came to a portion of the road that was a steep climb for a few miles, and that’s when the van decided that it didn’t want to go on anymore. It lurched forward and stopped like an animal taking its dying steps. In my mind, I saw the whole scene as Wiley Coyote, dying of thirst, as he crawls in the desert with all his might towards the oasis and the Road Runner; only to collapse just a few feet before he gets there. Like a dummy, I turned the key with enough repetitious enthusiasm that, if I were in the movies, the van would have seen my intensity and started right up. But vans don’t run on intensity. Instead of the comforting sound of the engine, all I got were the clicks of doom, or as The Head Shop Guy would have called it, “a dead battery.”

“Damn you ghosts!” I thought.

We sat there for a few moments, and I decided that we needed to get the van off the road as much as possible. I put it in neutral and let gravity pull us back down the hill while steering on to the shoulder. The reverse motion of the van must have reversed the polarity of scientists lady’s brain, because she looked at me with her giant magnified eyes and squeaked, “Why are we going backwards? What’s wrong?”

“It sounds like the battery died. I’m backing us off the road,” I replied.

She squeaked again and turned her head front to back over and over again making sure I wasn’t driving us off the road. If I hadn’t know better, I would have said she was an owl. Once we were situated on the shoulder, I grabbed the satellite phone and went to check under the hood to make sure the battery cable hadn’t popped off.

“Please stay in the van,” I told everyone.

Of course, as soon as I popped the hood, the passengers decided that inside the safety of the van was not where the action was, so they decided to get out and look around.

“You should stay in the van,” I said. “It’s not safe on the road.”

“Can we be eaten by bears?” the scientist lady said sarcastically as she looked out over the hills.

“Maybe!” I said back. “But trucks are the ones with a taste for scientists.”

“I think we’ll be fine,” she laughed.

Slightly annoyed I gave in and said, “Okay, just stay close to the van.”

The cables on the battery were fine. So I took the satellite phone out of the case and noticed right away that it was missing a very important piece. The most important piece. The battery was not there.

In a moment of forgetfulness, I hopped back in the van with the intent of using the CB to call for help. When I flicked the switch, I remembered that a dead battery meant that I couldn’t use the CB. I sat there for a few moments weighing my options. I had no way of letting anyone know that we had broken down on the side of the road, and I had no way of knowing how long we would have to wait there for someone to come along. But waiting was the only option we had.

The scientist lady must have sensed that we were going to be there for awhile, because she grabbed her bottle of water and said, “I’m going for a walk.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said.

“How long do you think it will be?” she asked.

“I don’t know, it could be a few hours or a few minutes. We just have to wait here.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

She started walking up the hill.

“Stay by the road,” I yelled. “Watch out for bears…or tundra bugs!”

She waved her hand in acknowledgment and continued on her way up the road.

After about a half an hour, two very large men in a very small a Department of Fish and Game truck stopped and let me use their phone. I was thankful, but distracted as I tried to figure out how these two men could fit in to that truck. It was a stick shift, and both of these guys were pushing 300 pounds each. The type of phone they were using was a little different than a normal satellite phone, because it would bounce its signal off radio station repeaters, and messages would be gathered and delivered by an operator in Bettles. Anyone listening along the repeater route could hear the conversation on the phone, and because of a delay, the number of words we could say were limited. So messages were often short and cryptic, like, “Two men, little truck. Over!”

I dialed the number to Bettles.

“Hello,” a voice said.

“Hi…broken down…please call company…send someone from Coldfoot. Over!” I said back.

After getting directions to our location, the voice on the phone said he would deliver the message as soon as he could. I thanked the two big men in the little truck and they drove off. Much to our relief, one of my co-workers drove up in his tour bus a short time later and had a working satellite phone. There were no ghosts after this particular driver. I called the company and told them we were going to ride in with his group to Coldfoot. We loaded everything up, and I told the ghost to guard the van.

As we drove up the road, I expected to find the scientist lady walking along, but I quickly realized that she hadn’t followed my instructions. She wasn’t on the road. This part of the Dalton was the start of a steep incline with big rocks jutting out from the ground, and splotches of trees on the tundra. With the terrain and the occasional access road to the pipeline, it was difficult to gauge where she might have gone. I started to worry. Had she been eaten by a bear? Were tundra bugs carnivorous? I couldn’t remember. Visions of clear skinned bugs whose main features were their beady black eyes and sharp mandibles entered my mind, as the people on the tour bus looked out the window for her. Maybe thousands of bugs had come crawling out of the tundra and were currently dining on what could have been their first Canadian dinner ever. After turning around and driving the same stretch of road a few times, my co-worker made the decision to continue on to Coldfoot. This left me wondering if leaving her behind was the wisest choice?

As I had explained to the passengers before we left, one of the company rules was that we were not responsible for people once they were outside of the van, and the scientist lady had decided on her own to leave the group and go for a walk by herself. Would she know someone was coming for her when she got to the van? Should I have stayed with the van and yelled at her once she got back? “Screw you and your giant eyes!” Despite what the rule was, the thought of her being eaten by bugs stayed in my mind, and I kept thinking of the words “This van is crazy!”

Once we got to Coldfoot, we ordered lunch at the cafe and sat down with all the other travelers. There’s always a good crowd in the dining area, and this particular day was no exception. There were people all around enjoying their food and loudly sharing their tales of traveling the road. I sat at the table, picking at my food and quietly worrying about the scientist lady.

When I first caught sight of her an hour later, she didn’t look all that upset. I found out that a Department of Transportation worker had picked her up and brought her in to town. I was glad she wasn’t nourishment for future generations of tundra bugs and felt a sense of relief. Her hair was tussled about, and she looked like she had just gotten back from working out at the gym, but her sweaty face did not show someone who was angry. My mind started to think that she wasn’t going to be angry. She would see the logic of the decision to leave her behind. She’d have to accept it as something that had to have happened, right?

When she spotted me with her giant eyes, her face immediately turned a shade of red that I had only previously seen on cartoons when the characters drank chili sauce. Taking long heavy steps toward me, her feet produced booming sounds up from the wooden floor that sent a jolt of fear down my spine. When she was in front of me, she extended her right hand and index finger, pointed at me, and her cartoon red face began to deliver a verbal thrashing that I had never experienced before.

For the next 10 minutes I looked in to large pupils, as she proceeded to tell me exactly what she thought of being left behind on one of the most desolate roads in the world. No expletives were spared in her description of the event, or in her opinion of the driver that left her there. She yelled that she had left the road to hike up a small hill and couldn’t believe a bus full of people wouldn’t have been able to see her. Instead of trying to defend myself, I just took the thrashing. It wasn’t until some of the kitchen crew intervened that the scientist lady said her last, “fuck you,” and stormed out of the dining area. The same area that was loud with tales of the road just minutes before, was now deathly silent. Everyone stared at me, taking in what had just happened. Embarrassed, I got up from my chair and went out to “The Great White”.

It was pretty obvious that my day as the scientist lady’s driver on the Dalton Highway was over, so I grabbed her gear out of the van and loaded it in to the truck of someone else she had found to take her giant eyes up the road. As I finished the trip with the elderly passengers, I had a long time to ponder what had happened and why. The events of the day came down to something that was out of my control. Maybe it was Karma’s way of telling me that I should have helped that old lady with her groceries instead of running her over with the car? Maybe there really was a ghost in the van? I came to the conclusion that days like that were meant to teach me something about myself. The big question was, what?

As I look back at my time as a driver on the Dalton Highway, I feel that if I can do that job and survive, I can do anything. Instances like the one with scientist lady are meant to teach us that the road is never easy. Things do not always go according to plan. We just have to keep going, and hope we make it to the end of the trip intact.

At the end of this particular trip, everyone got where they needed to go. Most importantly, everyone got there alive. When I got back in to town and returned the now fixed van to the terminal, The Head Shop Guy told me that I was going to deliver some solution to the research camp on my next trip. He thought they might have a bug problem.

“Tundra bugs,” I thought to myself.

Smiling, I grabbed my clipboard and a pen and wrote in big letters, “This van is crazy!”

About Matthew Schroder

There is no shortage of science fiction reading here. No lack of appreciation for beards, love of coffee or obsession over blueberries.